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Introduction to the Book of Joshua

Sixth Book of the Old Testament


What is Joshua?

Joshua is the sixth book of the Christian Old Testament. Among Christians it is categorized as the first of the Historical Books; among Jews it is the first book of the group called First Prophets. The Book of Joshua picks up immediately where the Book of Deuteronomy left off: Moses has died, power is being transferred to Joshua, and the Israelites are about to begin their conquest of Canaan.


Facts About the Book of Joshua

  • Joshua has 24 chapters and 658 verses
  • Joshua's armies are depicted defeating 31 city-states in Canaan
  • Events in Joshua contradict events in Judges


Important Characters in Joshua

  • Joshua: Moses' successor as leader of the Israelites
  • Yahweh: The god worshipped by the Israelites
  • Rahab: Prostitute in Jericho who provides shelter to two Israelite spies
  • Achan: Member of the tribe of Judah, stoned to death for taking spoils
  • Eleazar: Son of Aaron, successor as High Priest
  • Phinehas: Son of Eleazar


Who Wrote the Book of Joshua?

Authorship of the Book of Joshua is often attribute to Joshua himself, but nowhere in the text is any such claim made. The text itself is anonymous and the Babylonian Talmud was the first to try to argue that all of the Jewish scriptures must have been written by a prophet who was an eyewitness to the events described. Thus this book was attributed to Joshua.

There is, however, no evidence or basis for such a conclusion and scholars have concluded that it must have been written much later than the events described. In fact, it's likely that the book was edited together out of a couple of different sources by more than one person. Most was at least edited together by a Deuteronomist editor, though there may have been some later additions by one of the Priestly contributors.

Most scholars today also agree that Joshua was originally part of a larger cycle of texts which they call the Deuteronomist History: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.


When Was the Book of Joshua Written?

There is no agreement on exact dating of the Book of Joshua, but many believe that the conquest stories that appear in chapters 2 through 12 were written before the 11th century BCE then edited together during the 9th century. The introduction and the conclusion were probably not added until the 5th century BCE. The middle part where the land is divided, chapters 13-22, could have been written earlier or later.


Book of Joshua Summary

Joshua Takes Command (Joshua 1): Now that Moses is dead, it's time for Joshua to take command of the Israelites generally and the Israelite army specifically. God speaks first, reminding people yet again about what's expected of them in terms of obedience and faithfulness. God then officially assigns Joshua the task of taking land and cities away from the current inhabitants of Canaan. Next Joshua addresses the people about what they will need to do in order to live in peace in Canaan. Finally, the people promise absolute, unquestioning obedience to any orders Joshua gives.

Conquest of Canaan (Joshua 2-12): God parts the Jordan river, allowing the Israelite army to enter Canaan. Once there all the men are circumcised and then the conquest can begin. The Joshua starts by cutting through the middle at Jericho, then destroys the cities in the south, and finally moves to destroy the cities in the north. In both the south and the north, Joshua defeats large multi-city and even multi-national coalitions.

Dividing the Spoils (Joshua 13-21): Now that all of the Canaanite cities have been razed and the people either killed or taken into slavery, the Israelites are given the chance to divide up the lands they have taken. God personally gives each tribe a specific territory to Cal their own. This paralellels God's giving the lands as a whole to the Israelites as a whole.

Joshua's Farewell (Joshua 23-23): The Book of Joshua ends much like it began, with warnings about what will happen to the Israelites if they don't remain faithful to Yahweh and obey all of the commandments given to them.


Book of Joshua Themes

Israel's Worship of and Obedience to God: The success of the Israelites is directly tied to their continued faithfulness and obedience to Yahweh. So long as they do what they are told and worship only this one god, they will enjoy all the blessings promised to them. If they stray from the path, however, they will lose everything. This theme is important in Joshua because it impacts their successes on the battlefield.

Theophany: Yahweh isn't just a character in the Book of Joshua, he's the most important character. Everything that happens, happens because of Yahweh. The military successes of the Israelites happen only because of Yahweh. In effect, then, the actions of the human characters only matter insofar as Yahweh wills it — everything they do, they do because it's what Yahweh wants.

Covenant: The common biblical theme of covenants is continued In Joshua in three ways. First, all the Jewish males circumcise themselves as a sign of their covenant with Yahweh. Second, Joshua makes a covenant with the people after they promise to serve Yahweh. Third, the Israelites are only moving into Canaan because of an earlier covenant between Yahweh and their ancestors. In the first two cases, the people are committing not only themselves but all their descendants to a particular course of action and they are going to be held to that, whether they like it or not.

Ethnic Cleansing & Genocide: There is no attempt to live peacefully alongside the Canaanites. There is no attempt to reach a peaceful settlement of differences. There isn't even any effort to offer the Canaanites some sort of treaty. No, the program of the Israelites is nothing more or less than genocide.

It's a program that was demanded by Yahweh back in Deuteronomy 20:17: "You shall not leave alive anything that breathes." The Book of Joshua doesn't shrink from describing how people are slaughtered in order to glorify God. This wasn't unusual behavior at the time and it was consistent with the doctrine of "holiness" — if the Israelites are a special people, there would be no room for mixing with outsiders.

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